Over the past two months, the one goal that I had for the Zags in this NCAA Tournament was to avoid being a one-and-done. While I have long thought that this team was capable of putting together a deep run, the youth and inexperience that dominates the roster had me with minimal expectations and hopes. Even with the truly impressive victory against such an athletic and physical Florida St. team, I still believe that every win this team picks up for the rest of the season is just gravy on top of an excellent year. I'm sure that many of you are shaking your heads in disbelief because this kind of goes against what we typically write on this blog, but I will spend tomorrow finally enjoying Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in years.
I don't want this to come across like I don't think Gonzaga can win this game, because I absolutely do. If Arinze Onuaku is truly out of this game (I don't particularly trust any declaration that Jim Boeheim has made about his situation), Gonzaga will have the size and depth advantage in this match up. The six guys that are in the Syracuse rotation are extremely talented and athletic, but fatigue and foul trouble could completely alter this game in the favor of the Zags. With that said, this Syracuse team is used to playing a small number of guys for the majority of the game, so it will not take them out of their element if they are forced to play a lot of minutes.
One of the things that makes Syracuse so difficult to prepare for, especially with only 48 hours to prepare, is the length and aggressiveness of their 2-3 zone defense. The Orange have run one of the most successful 2-3 zones in recent memory, and the length and aggressiveness of guys like Kris Joseph and Wesley Johnson makes it very difficult to get open looks. While one of the best ways to defeat a zone defense is to hit shots from the perimeter, I don't think Gonzaga can become one-dimensional and win this game.
The Zags need to attack the zone in the middle with Elias Harris. Harris showed excellent control and passing ability in the Florida St. game, and if he can do the same against the pressure of the Syracuse zone, he can be a very valuable contributor on the offensive end. Rob Sacre must also look to get the ball in position to score and get buckets off easy rebounds. One of the disadvantages of a zone defense is that it's difficult to rebound out of since you are boxing out an area instead of a specific man. This should open up potential rebounds and easy points for both Rob and Elias in the paint.
On the defensive end, I would expect to see Gonzaga in the 2-3 zone, since Syracuse isn't a great shooting team. Andy Rautins can certainly get hot and beat you from the perimeter, but the majority of their scoring will come in transition and inside the arc. As long as Gonzaga can prevent anyone on Syracuse from getting hot like Dulkys did on Friday night, then the Zags should be able to keep this game close throughout. Both teams excel when they can get out in transition and get easy buckets, so it wouldn't surprise me to see a strong focus on transition defense and preventing easy points.
Even with Onuaku out of this game, I would like this match up for the Zags. Elias Harris is one of the rare guys that can balance out Wesley Johnson, and the lack of depth that Syracuse has is something that Gonzaga should be able to take advantage of. In a game that will stay close throughout, I expect the Zags to pull away late for the 77-67 victory.